Independence talk could boomerang on separatist party in Quebec elections

Quebec voters will elect a new government Monday following a tumultuous campaign that revived the debate on whether the French-speaking province should break away from Canada.

That possibility now seems far off, with the pro-independence Party Quebecois facing a backlash over the renewed talk of independence, an idea that has enjoyed little support in recent years.

Quebec Premier Pauline Marois, who has led a minority government since September 2012, called the snap National Assembly elections last month in the hopes of securing a majority needed to pass the PQ's controversial "charter of values," which would ban public employees from wearing religious headgear, including Muslim headscarves and Jewish skullcaps.

Marois had tried to mute talk of another referendum on independence. But the strategy backfired early in the campaign when one PQ candidate, multi-millionaire media baron Pierre Karl Peladeau, burst onto the scene with a fist-pumping declaration of his commitment to "make Quebec a country."

That turned independence into the defining issue of the campaign, sidelining the "charter of values" that the PQ had hoped would electrify French-speaking voters in crucial swing regions.

Now, political experts see the PQ struggling to take control of the 125-seat legislature. Instead, the election has offered the Quebec Liberals — staunch supporters of Canadian unity — a shot at winning a majority just 18 months after provincial voters booted them from power for the first time in nine years.

"The campaign went off the rails with the Peladeau announcement and then it has just been a matter of desperately throwing anything at the wall to see what sticks, and finding that everything has instead bounced back at them," said Daniel Weinstock, a law professor at Montreal-based McGill University.

One political cartoon summed up the dynamic: On a line graph measuring voter preference, the image of Peladeau's raised right fist directly corresponded with a drop in PQ support.

Jean-Guy Perreault, a longtime PQ voter, is among those who were turned off by Peladeau's gesture.

"I thought that went too far," the 56-year-old businessman said while on his lunch break in Montreal's bustling financial district. "I usually vote PQ but I don't want independence." He has decided to vote for the smaller Coalition for Quebec's Future party, which promises to set aside the sovereignty debate to focus on the province's struggling economy.

The Liberals remain haunted by allegations of corruption that tainted their nine years in power. But party leader Philippe Couillard, who opposes the charter of values, hammered away at the referendum issue and framed the election as a choice between uncertainty and stability.

"The choice is clear," Couillard said during one televised debate. "Do you want to elect the Parti Quebecois, which will prepare another referendum, or a Liberal government that will attend to the economy, jobs, education and health?"

Quebec has had two referendums on sovereignty. The last such vote, in 1995, narrowly rejected independence.

Michel Ducharme, a Quebec history professor at the University of British Columbia, said the campaign has proven that support for an independent Quebec remains stuck at low levels.

"What we have learned over the course of this campaign is that support is still the same, and that's not enough to win an election," Ducharme said.

Quebec, which is 80 percent French-speaking, has plenty of autonomy already. The province of 8.1 million sets its own income tax, has its own immigration policy favoring French speakers, and has legislation prioritizing French over English.

But many Quebecois have long dreamed of an independent Quebec, as they at times haven't felt respected and have worried about the survival of their language in English-speaking North America.

Still, if the PQ gets anything less than a majority on Monday, political analysts expect a shake-up within the party.

In Weinstock's view, Marois will likely be out as leader and the charter of values will recede into the background.

One PQ supporter said she's disappointed with the way the election campaign has played out and feels the case for the charter has been misrepresented by its critics.

"I think we need it to ensure the separation of church and state — in hospitals, in schools, and in our government," said Lucie Jobin, a Montrealer who heads a Quebec organization promoting secularism.

Jobin took part in a rally in favor of the charter on Saturday in Montreal. Protests have also been held against the charter, drawing thousands of Muslims, Jews and Sikhs.